Burton Fredericksen's "The Burdens of Wealth"
|J. Paul Getty's pay phone at his British manor house, Sutton Place
When former (and notorious) Getty Trust president Barry Munitz informed Burton B. Fredericksen that his services were no longer required, he gave Fredericksen an offer he couldn't refuse: $28,000, on top of a generous termination package, just to sign an agreement not to disparage the Getty. Fredericksen passed, "having had every intention of exposing the Munitz administration when the opportunity arose."
That intention evolved into a book on my COVID reading list, Fredericksen's The Burdens of Wealth: Paul Getty and His Museum (2015). It's not just a secret history of the Getty but a funny, smart bildungsroman. For that reason I don't know why The Burdens hasn't received more attention. As far as I can tell, it was never reviewed or noted in the Los Angeles Times. This being the season for book recommendations, let me add this 5-year-old and somewhat counterintuitive selection to your list. The Burdens of Wealth is available on Amazon and Apple Books.
Fredericksen had a Benjamin Button career. He was a UCLA art history student, working as a guard at J. Paul Getty's little Malibu museum, who was abruptly promoted to deputy museum director by Getty's accountant. (It was cheaper than hiring someone with experience.) Getty himself was "director," meaning that Fredericksen ran the show. After Getty's death and surprise bequest, the Trust grew in scope, budget, and influence. Fredericksen's job titles progressively downsized from museum director to chief curator, paintings curator, and then head of the Provenance Index.
Fredericksen explains his unconventional career arc without Trumpian grievance, offering himself as a counterexample to the Peter Principle. The book supplies entertaining portrayals of better-known colleagues such as Federico Zeri, Gillian Wilson, Jiri Frel, Stephen Garrett, Otto Wittmann, Harold Williams, John Walsh, George Goldner, and Deborah Gribbon.
I found myself highlighting surprising revelations and witty turns of phrase on almost every other page. There's plenty about the awfulness of the Munitz regime, but Fredericksen does a lot more than settle that score. There is inside-baseball coverage of the Getty Trust expansion under Williams; the no-provenance antiquities buys and restitutions; the feud between the Epicureans at the Museum and the Marxists at the Research Institute. I'll close with a sampling of what I learned.
|Lansdowne Hercules, about 125 AD. Getty Museum
• The penis of the Lansdowne Herakles was "said to have have been removed at the request of Lady Lansdowne and kept in a drawer along with other similarly unwelcome appendages."
• When London dealer Colnaghi managed to sell a damaged version of Titian's Pentitent Magdalene to J. Paul Getty, the financial participants included connoisseur Bernard Berenson (Getty's advisor but a secret partner of Colnaghi's "eligible to receive thirty percent of the profit for any picture he helped to sell") and even Getty's mistress Ethel Le Vane, who "received five percent of the price for her assistance, presumably unknown to Getty."
• J. Paul Getty was so cheap… One early Museum director, Paul Wescher, quit (in 1959) after requesting a calculator to help with financial reports. "Rather than buy a new calculator, the Getty office sent him a used manual one that operated with hand crank."
• Getty refused to air-condition his Malibu museum "maintaining that since the works of art at [his British mansion] Sutton Place had survived for centuries without the benefit of air conditioning, there should be no need for it now. It did little good to point out that the climate in southern California was vastly different from that of England, nor that some of the furniture at Sutton Place had mildew on it." When Getty did upgrade the California museum's climate control, he tried to economize by not running the A/C at night. This had to stop when Fredericksen discovered that the Flemish panel paintings were warping.
• Getty not only hated to pay for long-distance phone calls (Sutton Place had a pay phone) but also for airmail postage. There was no Internet, and air travel for museum staff was unthinkable… so staffers found it really, really difficult to communicate with Getty.
• One advantage of being a cheapskate: Getty stopped buying from one antiquities dealer after the "bill included the cost of packing, shipping, and telephone calls." The dealer was Robert Hecht, now known to be a smuggler, who was central to the Marilyn True-era antiquities scandals.
• After the Met paid $2.3 million for Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer in 1961, Getty "recorded his intention to buy nothing more, as though the world had gone mad and he was not so foolish as to participate."
• "Getty's interest in impressionism seems to have coincided with the realization that impressionist paintings had risen dramatically in value and he had failed to buy them in time."
|Tintoretto, Paradise, about 1588. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza
• Not a few masterpieces now at the Norton Simon Museum or the Met (via the Wrightsmans) were also offered to Getty. He passed on the Simon's great Tiepolo ceiling painting (Getty said he didn't care much for Tiepolo). Getty's curators didn't dare pitch the Zurburan Still Life With Lemons, knowing it would be too expensive.
Later Norton Simon hinted that he might willing to sell his entire art collection to the Getty, at the right price. Fredericksen was assigned to set a fair price for the Simon collection. His estimate was $231.5 million. "I cannot say whether it was the apathy of the trustees or the reluctance of Norton Simon that ultimately defeated the idea. I do know that [Otto] Wittmann was opposed, because while discussions were still under way he told me he thought the Simon collection was overrated, and not the sort of thing we should be buying."
|Jacopo Bassano, The Flight Into Egypt, about 1544-45. Norton Simon Museum
• Fredericksen brutally sums up Getty's collecting (and his own directorship) this way. In 1969 Norton Simon bought "one of the most beautiful Venetian paintings to enter an American collection," Bassano's The Flight Into Egypt. Simon's price, nearly $400,000, was way out of Getty's cheapskate league. Writes Fredericksen:
"We were pathetic bunglers by comparison: an old man with less than a decade to live, whose inability to spend his hard-won resources prevented him from living up to his vaguely perceived goals [Getty]; a middle-aged scholar who was allowing his need for money to corrupt his best principles [Zeri]; and an inexperienced and under-qualified curator who was only gradually coming to understand the issues involved and was incapable of resolving them [Fredericksen himself]."